When Bob Weimar took over as interim executive director in 2017, he was still renting a North Side apartment for $850 per month. It was basically just a bed to sleep in, as problems continually arose that kept him at work through the night.
The largest projects taken on by the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority in the past had barely cost $20 million, and it had completed only a handful of them. Weimar needed to prepare the agency to take on work the likes of which it had never done before. He needed to hire top-level staff quickly to do it.
The problem was the pipes kept breaking everywhere, the city was interfering with PWSA’s decisions and now the state Department of Environmental Protection was breathing down PWSA’s neck, asking it to replace tens of millions of dollars’ worth of lead service lines.
Weimar had been brought on as a consultant during Veolia’s tenure, and he had eventually taken over leadership of the engineering department. But it was hard to get anything done because there was so little money by the time Bernie Lindstrom, the previous director, had left.
“There were so many system failures or mundane problems, we never had the time to actually implement what Bernie wanted to do,” Weimar said.
The authority’s finances were in trouble. Jim Turner, who joined the board when Weimar became director in 2017, said he was shocked to learn that the agency was three weeks away from running out of cash and may not be able to make payroll.
“My God, what are we going to do?” Paul Leger, who had been on the board since 2014, remembers city leaders asked him.
That meant just when the authority was most in need of getting work done, they had to make emergency cuts, put off projects and stop paying their bills on time.
Most of the financial difficulties were due to years of lower than necessary rate increases and old bond deals that had gone awry. But not all of them.
During one board meeting just before Weimar took over, he told the board he was $10 to $12 million behind on the planned capital improvements that year. That same meeting, he spoke about investing $10 million in new sewer lines that Mayor Bill Peduto had pushed as an incentive for a new $400 million development in the Strip District. The city no longer permitted sewer lines to run under old buildings and so, according to then-board member Paul Leger, the city didn’t think the private developer should have to pick up the new cost.
PWSA was, once again, paying for new sewage pipes for private developers, rather than fixing its own pipes that badly needed replacement, Weimar thought. Two years later, a large water main in the Strip District broke that Weimar knew needed to be replaced. But PWSA had hundreds of millions of dollars in needed repairs and hadn’t set aside the money to replace it until the neighborhood had turned into a river.
That was the culture at PWSA that Weimar was trying to turn around. For too long the agency’s work was driven by fixing whatever happened to break that day.
Weimar submitted an ambitious budget, one that reflected the actual needs of the system, he said. “I think people were sort of stunned that there was that much work needed.”
Leger said the board would constantly monitor areas of concern, such as the implementation of a new corrosion control that would bring down the lead levels. “I drove them crazy,” Leger said of PWSA’s staff. “After a year of lateness on this project that was vitally important, I couldn’t stand the waiting anymore and I couldn’t stand the excuses.”
Leger said they gave Weimar space to do his job. “Previously, I would say the board was a creature of the city, and they didn’t do anything but vote the way they were told by the city,” he said. “There was no telling us how to vote. We made all our votes.”
Weimar was confident he could get the work done. But the threat of privatization was hanging over PWSA.
He told the staff: “If you want to retain PWSA as a public organization, you need to get off your butts and do something.”
Money coming in
To get on better financial footing, PWSA needed customers to pay their bills. But the billing system had become dysfunctional under Veolia’s leadership. Many customers stopped paying when reports of erroneously high bills circulated. And tens of thousands of sewage-only customers didn’t receive a bill at all for nearly a year.
Weimar hired Julie Quigley, PWSA’s former customer service manager. She had left PWSA six years before because she was not being given any opportunities for advancement. Now she was given control over the customer service and IT departments. Quigley wasn’t oblivious to the challenge ahead. She herself had stopped receiving a sewage bill from the department she was about to take over.
When she arrived, the office was in disarray. She interviewed all 60 staff about what was going on. Some of them would get angry and others would break down and cry. They described management that didn’t listen and managed through intimidation. The staff Veolia had hired didn’t know the business, and it wasn’t clear what the consultants they brought in to help were doing, she was told.
The problems were building up. Around 11% of customers were receiving estimates of their water usage, she said, so they had no way to reduce their water usage and decrease their bills. And 13% of the customers who called in were put on hold for so long that they just hung up.
Some board members thought the department was too far gone and should be outsourced. But Weimar gave Quigley a long leash, and she believed the authority had enough talent if they had better management. She offered incentives and provided opportunities for advancement. She sent out customer surveys and added in celebrations for good performance.
When Quigley took over, an audit showed that more than a third of customers had to wait longer than seven minutes to get their calls answered. After three years, the average wait time had fallen to 23 seconds.
A needed public victory
Behind the scenes, Weimar knew that the introduction of orthophosphates into PWSA’s system would probably drive the city’s lead presence down to levels not seen in decades. But it would take more than a year to do the testing and get regulatory approval from the state to make it happen.
In the meantime, while rumors of privatization efforts circulated, Weimar needed a public victory to help convince his staff that they could be just as successful as any private company.
But they were behind, and the problems kept growing. PWSA was supposed to have been replacing more than 850 lead service lines every six months since it fell out of compliance with federal regulations. But it had stopped replacing any lead lines after it became clear that replacing only the public side in the street could result in higher short-term lead levels when lead pipes remained on private property. Residents could pay to have their own lead lines replaced, but it cost thousands of dollars and few people were willing or able to take them up.
By the time PWSA had sorted out all the legal complications behind spending public money on private property, their challenge had only become more daunting. They would need to replace more than 1,341 lead lines every six months to catch up.
“There is no way in the world we’re going to be able to do that,” Turner told Weimar during a meeting of the board’s executive committee.
But Turner said Weimar just looked him in the eye and said, ”I have a guy who can get this done.”
Weimar called up Dan Duffy, an old colleague who had just retired. One of the biggest challenges Duffy faced was convincing people to let PWSA do work on their property. Traditionally, the work required digging trenches through people’s yards. Weimar recommended a cheaper method of pulling through new service lines that wouldn’t tear up people’s yards. It hadn’t been done yet by contractors in the Pittsburgh area, and the contractors were skeptical. Activists from The Our Water Campaign helped build public support for the program, Weimar said.
As the first deadline approached in June 2018, PWSA wasn’t on pace. They already had seven contractors working but hired another.7. So there were eight crews tearing up streets across the city. PWSA’s board was asking for daily updates. Weimar told Duffy that failure was not an option.
Weimar’s motto was “get shit done.” He would sometimes get gruff with staff in the engineering department and even with Peduto. He could be a warm leader but didn’t have much patience for politics and glad-handing.
As the deadline approached, Duffy found himself on the phone begging contractors for help. “Can you give us another crew? We just need a couple more,” he said. Then he asked the crews if they could start working weekends.
It wasn’t until a few days before the deadline that they were sure they were going to meet their goal. They ended up with 1,347 lines replaced, six above the target. Duffy’s team had a pizza party in a conference room to celebrate. It was a quiet but momentous moment for PWSA.
“This was a PWSA program we could all be proud of,” said Will Pickering, who was PWSA’s spokesperson at the time and is now CEO.
The following week, Peoples Gas laid out its formal proposal to take over PWSA. But Weimar told the media that the work PWSA had done replacing lead lines was evidence that it “can operate as a public entity.”
A year and a half later, at the end of a meeting in the mayor’s office about state funding, Peduto congratulated Weimar.
“I didn’t think you could do it,” Weimar said Peduto told him. “But you did turn an aircraft carrier around.”
Read the next story in this series: “Part 10 – The retirement of an old-school public servant will test the durability of PWSA’s turnaround”
Explore more stories in this series: “A water crisis swept through Pittsburgh five years ago: This is the fullest account of what happened.”
Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ORMorrison.
This story was fact-checked by Matt Maielli.
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